The publication today  of the first English translation of Confessions of the Flesh has been welcomed by one of the leading experts on French philosopher Michel Foucault’s work.
Stuart Elden, Professor of Political Theory and Geography in Warwick University’s Politics and International Studies Department, has made an extensive study of Foucault’s intellectual career. His latest book, The Early Foucault, will be published in summer 2021, and looks at Foucault’s work leading up to his first major publication, History of Madness.
Professor Elden comments: “This new translation, the fourth volume of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, was published in French in February 2018 as Les Aveux de la chair. It received quite a bit of media attention at the time, as it was Foucault’s expressed wish that there should be ‘no posthumous publications’ and the partially completed manuscript had been locked in a bank vault for thirty years.
“Foucault spoke of his work as a ‘history of the present’, an examination of how we got to where we are, how what is currently taken for granted was made possible. The issues he was concerned with – madness and mental illness, medicine, disease and public health, punishment, sexuality, subjectivity and so on – remain pressing issues today. His investigation of these issues, and perhaps especially the questions he asked about them, mean he continues to be a regular reference.
“The publication today of the English translation by Robert Hurley will make this important text available to a much wider audience.”
Reflecting on the significance of this translation and on Foucault’s academic legacy, Professor Elden added:
“Foucault was trained as a philosopher and a psychologist, teaching in France and elsewhere through a career cut short by his death at just 57. Although he has been discussed, used and criticised in many disciplines, he was essentially a philosopher who explored questions through historical investigations. Most of his books are titled the history of something – madness, sexuality – or the birth of something – the clinic, the prison. He sometimes described his work as archaeologies – digging down to discover previously unseen layers, or genealogies – tracing roots and lineages of ideas and practices. But this work was always to try to explore larger questions – why do we think the way that we do, or know what we do; how does power work over us; what does it mean to be a subject?
“In many ways Confessions of the Flesh is the key to the whole History of Sexuality series. In 1976, with the publication of the first volume, Foucault outlined a thematic treatment of six volumes. He published none of them. The second book, on that plan, was to be on the medieval church and especially the question of confession of sins. Its initial title was La chair et le corps [The Flesh and the Body]. Foucault wrote much of a volume under this title. But he came to realise that crucial issues in the Christian tradition could be traced much further back. So through the late 1970s and early 1980s, which we can see in his lecture courses and other sources, he explored older and older historical material.
“This book is the result of this research, and was completed in the early 1980s. Foucault gave the manuscript to Gallimard at this time, but said it was not yet ready for publication. “Foucault felt that he needed to precede this book with a treatment of pagan antiquity, as he came to realise that many of the issues in the early Christian tradition had links to Greek and Roman texts and practices. So he put this manuscript aside, wrote the books which were published as Volumes II and III, and the intended book on Christianity became Volume IV. He retrieved the manuscript from Gallimard to complete the final editing. He told his friends it would appear in October 1984, and was nearly complete at the time of his death in June, with him working on it even in hospital. Given his wishes for ‘no posthumous publications’ the manuscript remained locked in a bank vault for over thirty years.
“The book is in three parts. The first discusses how the ancient notion of aphrodisia – which we might understand as pleasure, became replaced with the Christian notion of the flesh. That, in turn, precedes our modern understanding of sexuality. The second and third parts of the book discuss being a virgin and being married. These are the two key subjects that the Church fathers are concerned with – the monk and the married man. There are also some shorter manuscript materials published as appendices.
“The book is much closer in style to Volumes II and III than some of Foucault’s other works. It is written in an austere style of textual analysis, without the kind of rhetorical flourishes that characterise some of his other work.
Reflecting on Foucault’s continued relevance, Professor Elden added: “In his books, Foucault only rarely wrote about contemporary events. In his lectures and interviews, and especially in his political activism around prisons and health in the early 1970s, he sometimes connected his work to the current moment. But most often he was concerned with the historical analysis of issues. He spoke of his work as a ‘history of the present’, an examination of how we got to where we are, how what is currently taken for granted was made possible.
“With the publication of his lecture courses, and now this book, we are continually finding new work to explore and think with him.”
- Professor Elden is the author of Foucault’s Last Decade, a study of Foucault’s History of Sexuality which draws on archival material and interviews http://politybooks.com/bookdetail/?isbn=9780745683911
- He is also the author of a book on the immediately preceding period which looks at Foucault’s political activism and academic work on power – http://politybooks.com/bookdetail/?isbn=9781509507252
- His book The Early Foucault will be published in summer 2021, and looks at Foucault’s work leading up to his first major book, History of Madness https://politybooks.com/bookdetail/?isbn=9781509525959
- He is currently working on a final volume of this intellectual history, looking at Foucault’s work in the 1960s
- His review essay of the French edition of this text was published in 2018 - https://www.theoryculturesociety.org/review-foucaults-confessions-flesh/ (open access)
16 February 2021
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